Why Your Kids Struggle With Math Word Problems (and how you can help)

Have you noticed that your child’s homework contains more word math problems than ever before?  Math word problems are regarded as a vital part of the mathematics curriculum, as it enhances the student’s mental skills, helps develop logical analysis and boosts creative thinking.  Learning to solve math word problems from a young age provides the foundation students need to solve similar problems when they enter the workplace.

However, word problems are hard.  Word problems are confusing. And our kids hate doing word problems.  Whether your child excels in math or struggles to understand mathematical concepts and formulas, math word problems are often an entirely new entity that can cause even mathematically skilled children to struggle.  Math word problems require a different skill set than standard math problems that children will need to master in order to succeed. To get the right answer, your child has to be able to read the words, figure out what math operation to use, and then do the calculations correctly.  A breakdown in any of these skills can lead to difficulty.

If your child seems to be good at math but has trouble with word problems, here are possible reasons why—and ways you can help.

Why Your Kids Struggle With Math Word Problems

Children often struggle with math word problems because they require an ability to analyze information and extract only useful elements. Instead of being told directly what operation they need to do, they have to discover it themselves before they can even begin to figure out the solution.  Students struggle with math word problems for many reasons, but there are 3 main problems that we at Everest Education find many students have encountered:

#Reason1: Trouble With Reading

To solve word problems, children have to read well.  One reason your child may be struggling is that she has trouble with reading in general.  How do you know if this is a difficult area for them? Try reading a word problem to your child.  If your child gets the correct answer when you read it aloud, but not when reading the problem on their own, it could be a challenge with reading.

#Reason2: Trouble Understanding Math Phrases and Concepts

Even if kids are strong readers, they may have trouble picking up on clues in word problems.  These clues are phrases that help students figure out what they need to do to solve the problem.  Kids must translate these phrases into what teachers call “a number sentence.” Here’s a simple example of a word problem and its corresponding number sentence:

  • Word problem: “Sue has two pencils. She spends one hour at the store and buys three more pencils. How many pencils does Sue have in all?”
  • Number sentence: “2 + 3 = ____.”

Some kids can picture a number sentence like this one in their heads.  Others need to write it down. Either way, there’s a lot to think about before getting to the point where you can calculate that the answer is 5.  To turn a word problem into a number sentence, kids need to understand the language and concepts of math. For example, they need to know that the phrase “How many pencils in all?” means adding together the two groups of pencils.  Some kids have a lot of trouble with this skill. That’s why a child who can easily calculate 2 + 3 = 5 might struggle with a word problem using the same calculation.

#Reason3: Trouble With Focus and Self-Control

Some kids can read a word problem and explain how it should be solved, but still, get the wrong answer. What’s going on? One reason could be trouble with focus and self-control.  Kids may get distracted by the words or get lost in their heads.  This can lead to confusion with the math. Other kids struggle with self-control and rush through the problem.  They may skip important parts or make simple calculation mistakes. Extra information in word problems can trip kids up, too.  Some details aren’t needed to solve the problem. For example, kids don’t need to know that Sue spent one hour in the store to figure out how many pencils she has.  Kids need to learn to weed out this information.

Help your child overcome the fear of word problems

Math problems can be a struggle and helping kids understand them isn’t always easy.  Here we suggest parents some simple ways to help your child tackle math word problems with ease:

1. Utilize math in everyday life
Your child’s math homework may have a problem that involves going to the grocery store and figuring out a total bill, or baking in the kitchen following a new recipe.  Try recreating this in real life and help your child learn to use math in practical ways. You can also make a game of it and show your child that math can be fun!

>> Find out some playful Math activities to play with your primary kids at home to enhance math learning: https://blog.e2.com.vn/playful-math-activities-for-your-primary-kids/

2. Teach your child  a logical process
If your child is struggling with math word problems, teach her a logical process to go through to determine what needs to be done.  These steps should be:

  • Question – Read the problem to determine what the question is.
  • Information – Determine what information you have.
  • Clue words – What words tell you the math process to use.
  • Equation – Use the information, question and clue words to write an equation.
  • Check your work – Does your answer make sense compared to the given information and the question?

Once your child can learn to use this process on a regular basis, you will find that she has much more success with word problems.

3. Teach your child common keywords
Many students read a word problem and have no idea what to do with it. Yet most word problems at primary grade levels have clue words in them.  Helping your child understand which words are associated with different mathematical functions can help steer her in the right direction to find the final answer.  For instance, “and” usually indicates an addition problem, while “less than” may clue you into a subtraction problem and “product of” means you’ll need to multiply.  That’s why parents should teach your child to identify those clue words, to help ease the struggle. Here are the basic clue words:

  • Addition – Combined, increased, a total of, sum, added to, together, plus
  • Subtraction – Minus, less, less than, fewer than, difference, decreased, take away, more than
  • Multiplication – Multiplied, the product of, times, of
  • Division – Divided by, into, per, the quotient of, percent, out of, the ratio of

Parents can make index cards with phrases that are commonly used in word problems. For example, one index card might show “in all” next to the “+” sign. Another card might show “all together” next to the “+” sign.  When your child works on math homework, encourage your child to get into the habit of matching an index card to each phrase in a word problem.

>> To help your child quickly get along with basic math terms in English, click here to download our free printable flashcards, created by Everest Education’s math teachers.

Download Math flashcards

4. Use Manipulates or Diagrams

Sometimes visualizing the problem can give the student the tools needed to solve it. For problems with small amounts, you can use math manipulatives to help your child picture what is happening. For larger amounts or measurements, draw a diagram. This action gets additional learning processes involved and helps make the word problem a visual concept for the child to consider. You can also ask kids to close their eyes and try to picture what’s happening in the problem: “Imagine the first group of pencils joining together with the second group and forming one large group.”

 Make it more concrete by using coins, toothpicks, or other objects. Use them to form the two small groups, and then combine them into one group. This is also one of many useful techniques that our teachers often apply in our math classes, where we use manipulatives such as paper, coins, building blocks as tangible objects to introduce new concepts, help students approach and solve problems.  The key to making word problems solvable for your child is to make them understandable and then provide the right practice and support.

5. Improve your child’s ability to focus
Ask your child to read through the problem once. Then, have your child read it again, circling the important words and phrases. This is called active reading. It can help your child stay focused and avoid rushing. Another strategy is using blank pieces of paper to cover all the problems except the one your child is doing. You can also try making a list of things for your child to double-check.

>> Additionally, parents can learn more about 3 Reasons Why Your Child Does Not Stay Focused In School, as well as find out some Expert Tips to Improve Your Child’s Focus in Class from our old articles.  Once you’ve tried a few of these suggestions, you might have an idea why your child is struggling with math word problems.

6. Practice, practice, practice!
How can your child become a better problem-solver?  By solving more problems, of course! In order for a child to gain mastery of word problems, she needs practice.  To get your child comfortable with the process of solving math word problems, you and your child can talk through how to solve the problem before she attempts to find the answer.  There are a number of websites that offer free sample problems for your child to tackle.  If she needs additional help, you can come to visit us at Everest Education,  where we help students strategize and solve equations with confidence. We offer a personalized Singapore math program covering all math topics, including word problems, and provide personalized instruction to ensure that students make adjustments as needed when practicing.

Word problems are a big change from traditional math problems, and they require a different set of skills that children may not have developed yet.  It can be tricky, but by developing a process and practicing on a regular basis, word problems will no longer be difficult. We hope these exercises can help develop your child’s logical and abstract thinking skills as well as help them strengthen her problem-solving abilities.



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